There was a time when the most popular mobile gaming platform was the Nintendo Game Boy, and while Nintendo has continued to produce fantastic handheld systems (with some excellent, if less successful, competition from Sony along the way), it is another platform entirely that has grown to dominate portable gaming. I am talking about smartphones, and while the modern touchscreen version of this device category did not emerge until 2007, it took only a few years for mobile apps to replace Nintendo and Sony handhelds for many casual gamers. This trend, along with the low quality of most app-based games, has eroded the foundation of gaming, and dealt what seems to be irreparable damage to a once-great industry. In this series I will explore the scourge of mobile “gaming”, from the greed that solely motivates the design of most popular titles, to the mobile-port destruction of once-great console games.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the mobile app “gaming” explosion is the preponderance of so-called casual games, which are designed with low difficulty and repetitive gameplay. There is only one apparent motivation behind the design of the most popular apps for any particular month, and that (of course) is money. Even worse, however, is the inevitable side-effect of the casual game explosion: they are effectively training a generation of players to expect games that offer no challenge, easy rewards, and (when players are feeling even less motivated than usual) provide easy cheats via in-app purchases. This last part is how games which often cost “nothing” end up raking in millions. By conditioning players to expect no challenge and constantly reward their meaningless progress, the introduction of any sort of obstacle is enough to motivate the purchase of an easier experience in exchange for real money. This is the most nefarious aspect of the mobile app market, as developers intentionally lure users into purchases, called “micro-transactions”. This strategy of offering attractive options through the app that cost real money – generally in small enough amounts to make such purchases seem harmless – is the foundation of the industry today. These small purchases add up, of course, propelling the “free” app market into the billions of dollars annually. In fact, in 2015 such apps accounted for a staggering $25 billion in revenue, and that was the year before the biggest fad in mobile history hit the market.
The hottest mobile title of the summer was undoubtedly Pokemon: GO. This “game” was hastily constructed as a micro-transaction machine, offering a trendy “augmented reality” (AR) experience riddled with the paid cheats casual players need to feel satisfied. Still, it spurred unprecedented levels of interest in the Pokemon franchise, expanding far beyond the established fan base and squarely into the mainstream. People who had never played a Pokemon game before were downloading the app by the millions, and while the game was free to download and play, it was also the fastest game to $500 million in revenue. This exemplifies mobile gaming’s true motives, which are to extort as much money as possible from an audience that developers would prefer to be as gullible as possible, and the product quality reflects this. Anyone still as excited about Pokemon: GO with new, proper, Pokemon titles coming to the 3DS this month, would lose all credibility as true fans of the franchise. Wildly flipping one’s finger toward an on-screen foe is quite different than the strategic (and turn-based) approach of true Pokemon. But Pokemon: GO creator Niantic knew that perfectly well when they simply re-skinned and slightly modified their five-year-old flop Ingress during a rapid 6-month “development cycle”. Not surprisingly, Pokemon: GO players were not transplanted Ingress fans, and have probably never heard of the older title. Pokemon: GO was a setup from the very beginning, and naturally did not reach the level of mainstream attention it eventually attained without being promoted at the top of the Android and iOS app markets. But this is to be expected; how many mobile “gamers” have ever made an informed decision about the game they are playing? (Hint: the answer is zero.)
The truth is, with mobile “gaming” the purpose is to get users hooked, and nothing more. Once a user base has been established the exploitation of weak-minded casuals will allow the developers to start raking in the micro-transactions from in-app purchases to build a quick fortune before the next fad comes along. This is nothing new. Remember the obsession friends, family, and co-workers all had with ____________ ? (Insert FarmVille, Words with Friends, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or the summer fad Pokemon: GO.) But which of these games have the staying power of SNES-era classics such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, or Super Metroid? I think the answer could be counted on less than one finger. Notice that no mention of micro-transaction vehicles such as (shudder) Mobile Strike or Clash of Clans has been made, as these can not even be jokingly referred to as “games”. They are, however, incredibly popular and have generated millions in revenue for their developers (thus eroding the last of my faith in human nature). Money seems to be the only consideration for the trash littering the top-grossing games list, and that approach is clearly working. It is despicable, and disheartening.
Looking over the shoulder of just about anyone “gaming” on their phone is enough to turn the stomach of any fan of actual video games who struggles to find time to play amidst the time-constraints of adult life. School, work, and especially children can take up much of one’s waking hours, and to see a friend or loved one wasting hours on a mindless (and endless) mobile game is infuriating. And that is before considering that most of these people spend real money on cheats to beat even mildly difficult levels (we must not fall behind Aunt Edna in Candy Crush!). To think that this time, wasted so indiscriminately on these apps, could be spent discovering the treasures of video gaming’s golden past is very sad, but do not fear; greedy intellectual property owners have answered the call to offer simplified versions of some classic games for the casual market. It should now be readily apparent to the reader that mobile “gaming” is nothing but a soulless money-grab, and what has been done to exploit fans of historically great games in the mobile world is nothing short of embarrassing. We will explore a few of these sacrilegious abominations next week.